There was this one little so-Miami moment on the picturesque outdoor veranda of the downtown Perez Art Museum on Wednesday morning. The setting was postcard-perfect — precisely the idea. A seaplane glinting in the sun droned in to land on glistening Biscayne Bay. Gulls and a pelican glided past. Cruise ships set the background as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez prepared to introduce soccer icon David Beckham.
The tableau could not have been better if choreographed, except for the small prop-plane that kept circling overhead pulling the banner that read, “Beckham, Don’t Trust Gimenez .” It came into perfect view, a vandal’s slash on the mayor’s Rembrandt, and Gimenez glanced up, saw it, and shook his head slightly as he rose to speak.
Welcome to Miami, Becks, where sports and politics tend to make uncomfortably strange bedfellows, indeed.
A joke that passed around among the huge media throng was to wonder if Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria had rented the plane and banner.
Gimenez was a vocal opponent of the baseball team’s sweetheart stadium deal and continues near the front of Loria’s long, serpentine conga line of detractors.
The Marlins’ perceived fleecing of public money for their new ballpark and the resulting climate of mistrust is probably at least partly why the Dolphins have failed repeatedly to convince state legislators to help them with the stadium upgrades needed to land another Super Bowl.
Undoubtedly that is why Beckham, who wants to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to Miami, said, “I hear your concerns, I hear your issues,” and seemed to fire a preemptive strike Wednesday in stating flatly:
“We don’t want public funds. We will fund the stadium ourselves.”
Hmm. If only.
Beckham’s investment group already has hired a Tallahassee lobbyist to pursue a potential state sales-tax subsidy that could amount to $2 million per year over 30 years toward a new soccer stadium. There is also a strong possibility that if the stadium is built on the preferred site of county-owned land marked for commercial development on the southwest corner of PortMiami, that the Beckham group’s rent for the land might be considerably less than market value — a break that would be tantamount to funneling public revenue to the soccer venture.
Beyond all of that, more than just the site of the stadium and the funding plan are yet to be determined. Beckham admitted he is still “getting the right investors” together.
All of it made Wednesday’s event less a news conference than a pep rally.
Gimenez , Beckham and MLS commissioner Don Garber were gathered to sell or at least drum up support for a product that does not yet exist. A Eurythmics song with a fitting lyric played just before the news conference started:
It will be but a dream until that stadium starts rising, but it is a sweet one: Miami as the 22nd MLS franchise, hopefully launching as soon as 2016 or more likely 2017.
“Today, professional soccer is a reality in Miami,” Gimenez said.
No, the possibility is a reality. Now Miami must hope the cache and star power of Beckham can make it happen.
That lure drew a media mass in the hundreds Wednesday, along with soccer fans and curious onlookers. A boisterous fan group called Southern Legion kept waving banners and chanting.
It was comical (and embarrassing) to watch so many shameless “reporters” all but swooning in Beckham’s company Wednesday, storming the riser on which he stood for a closer photo. (At one point a gust of wind off the bay swept in and rendered a hair out of place on Beckham’s otherwise perfect coif.)
It is plain to understand why the English heartthrob targeted Miami for his expansion team.
Miami-Fort Lauderdale had the lowest rating of 56 metered U.S. markets for last week’s Super Bowl — but we had the highest rating in America for the most recent World Cup. That isn’t because the Dolphins’ long malaise has killed our football interest. It is because we are so diverse, so international, that as many of us spell it fútbol, and prefer it played with the ball round, not oblong.
Just in the past year, Dolphins stadium has hosted international soccer exhibition matches that have drawn 71,000 and 67,000 spectators. Again this year we will be hosting the championship of the Guinness International Cup, an eight-team tournament featuring world club-team powers such as Real Madrid, AC Milan and Manchester United.
There is no reason a Miami team, at the gateway to the Americas, cannot become the global brand Beckham envisions.
Too many South Floridians are passionate about soccer to not make a success of a well-placed, well-run MLS club.
It is unfair and inaccurate to say we have failed twice before to support major pro soccer here.
The original Fort Lauderdale Strikers succeeded pretty well in the original North American Soccer League from 1977 to ’83, averaging 10,823 loyal fans a game at a then-charming little Lockhart Stadium in their final season. It was the NASL that was collapsing, for the lack of more teams with the Strikers’ support.
The Miami Fusion played in MLS from 1998 to 2001, averaging 11,177 fans a game in its final season at a by-then-dilapidated Lockhart. Attendance was up 49 percent over the year before. MLS was struggling back then, though. That and weak ownership killed the Fusion, not a lack of fan support.
Miami deserves another shot at a major-level soccer team and an ownership group willing to cut through the political mire and mistrust to make it happen.
So in steps one David Beckham, who essentially confirmed Wednesday he was taking his talents to South Beach. If LeBron James is a bigger star, it isn’t by much.
Miami, MLS and American soccer are betting on the Beckham brand.
There have been far worse bets placed.